The outbreak of listeria from cantaloupe’s grown by Jensen Farms and covered extensively on Food Poison Journal has certainly shone a spotlight on the serious repercussions of listeriosis infections, which have resulted in at least 18 deaths and over 100 illnesses so far. But it has also highlighted the need to thoroughly examine the way fresh produce, like cantaloupes, are handled from a safety perspective.
In an article published today for The Oklahoman, Mike Ssegawa, a Ugandan journalist and food security fellow at Oklahoma State University, gets right to the heart of the issue. “[A]re cantaloupes safe to eat? How do we ensure there are safe fruits, veggies and other foods in the refrigerator?”
Wayne Whitmore, of Whitmore Farms in Coyle, said demand for his cantaloupes and other melons has not been affected by the outbreak because consumers in Oklahoma know the disease did not start in the state.
However, Lynn Brandenberger, who has worked in Oklahoma’s horticulture extension since the 1980s, has a message for farmers: Make sure your “farm is not a potential source for listeria contamination,” adding that the effect the outbreak of the illness has on the crop markets is adverse.
And to consumers, he advises: Wash cantaloupes with warm water, with a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables.
His colleague at Oklahoma State University, Beth Schaefer Caniglia, an associate professor of environmental sociology, explains that when an outbreak like listeria occurs, even if it’s isolated to one farm or region, understandably people tend to avoid taking the risk.
“They tend to think the produce on their grocer’s shelf is from that given farm or region,” Caniglia said.
But before such effects hit consumers or retailers, farmers who grow food should be examining how they raise their crops — fresh vegetables, fruits, cereals or meat, he said.
Caniglia said many people may not buy products regarded as risky, regardless of where they come from. And when effects persist, it hurts not only farmers, but the entire food chain.
The issue of human health and food safety is especially paramount for fresh fruits and vegetables that are intended to be eaten raw.
Muriana, a professor with Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Centre at OSU, believes the disease can pop up on any farm or market as long as the conditions that cause it exist.
“It could be anything that is grown outside and consumed without cooking,” Muriana said. Not only cantaloupes, but also fruits and vegetables can equally pick up listeria-like pathogens and transmit them to human beings since they are largely eaten raw.
Lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, pepper, among others, need safety measures as much as strawberries, apples, and peaches.
“It is even more significant if products are consumed without cooking because if the bacteria should be present, there is no cooking process to kill them before consumption,” Muriana added.
Brandenberger, OSU’s extension horticulturist said, washing cantaloupe with warm water and a brush appropriate for cleaning fruits and vegetables is helpful, though “there are no sure ways to keep listeria from contaminating fresh produce”.